Book Review: “Lady Hotspur” (by Tessa Gratton)

Darcy and Winters

Warning: Some spoilers for the book follow.

Judging by Goodreads, this book has, somewhat to my surprise, been ill-received by those who have read it. Perhaps it’s because of the book’s literary basis, or perhaps it’s the particular type of prose that Gratton uses–which, to be sure, is at times a bit baroque, or maybe it’s just that the author is a woman and the world of fantasy can be a bit unforgiving of female voices.

Allow me to be one of the dissenting voices. I found Lady Hotspur to be by turns moving, beautiful, haunting, and terrifying. It captures what is best about the fantasy genre and, what is just as important, it manages to do all of this in one volume rather than several. While there is pleasure to be had in a sprawling, multi-volume fantasy saga, sometimes you just want to read an epic story in one…

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The Great Golden Girls Marathon: “The Actor” (S2, Ep. 14)

It’s been entirely too long since I journeyed into the world of The Golden Girls, and so I thought I’d take a few minutes and share my thoughts on the 14th episode of the second season, entitled “The Actor.”

I know I’ve said this about many episodes of this show, but “The Actor” is without a doubt in my top ten favourite episodes. In it, Dorothy, Blanche, and Rose find themselves competing for the affections of a dashing actor, Patrick Vaughn, who has been contracted to perform with them in their community playhouse. Hijinks ensue, of course, given the fact that Patrick is carrying on an affair with all three of them, as well as with most of the other members of the community players.

Part of my love for this episode comes from the performances. In what is perhaps the funniest moment in the entire run of The Golden Girls, both Blanche and Dorothy recite lines next to Patrick. While Dorothy is swept up in her passion for Patrick in their on-stage kiss and “ad libs” a request for him to “take her, right here on this stage,” Blanche wears a pair of inflatable breasts that would make Jezebel blush. This moment, as my boyfriend has remarked, is a brilliant piece of blocking, as it requires that Blanche move about the “stage” in order to keep the viewer’s attention. It’s more than that, though. Blanche’s sheer exuberance, her ability to inhabit the role of Josie so completely, is hilarious precisely because it fits so neatly with the overdramatic southern belle persona that she has so thoroughly crafted for herself. The fact that Patrick inadvertently “pops her bosoms” just makes this moment all the more uproarious.

As humorous as the whole episode is, there is a moment at the very end that captures something deeply and emotionally resonant about this whole madcap affair. Each of the three women speaks of the thing that Patrick made them feel. He made Dorothy feel beautiful, he made Blanche feel young, and he made Rose feel smart. Though it is, of course, played for laughs–particularly when Dorothy responds to Rose’s confession with “God, what an actor”–it is also a moment of profound vulnerability, when each of them relates to the others their deepest insecurity. It’s one of those brilliant moments that the writers of The Golden Girls were so adeptly able to capture.

The only slight drawback is that Sophia is something of a bit player in this episode, though she does have some some great one-liners, such as her introduction of herself as “Linda Ronsatdt,” or when she informs Rose that she is off to “discover the Straits of Magellan.” Given that the episode focuses on the other three and their romantic competition, that makes sense. Nevertheless, her jokes are one of the key parts of my affection for the episode.

Yet the greater part of my affection comes from the fact that narratively it is the perfect distillation of a plot that the series will draw on several times: the competition for a man. In our culture, generally speaking it is precisely this competition that so often pits women against one another, forcing them to choose between their romantic desires and their bonds with one another. As this episode makes abundantly clear, they will always choose their each other, precisely because men are so transient, so willing to betray the women in their lives so long as it pleases their own desires.

Next up, we’ll see what happens when Rose suffers what she thinks is a heart attack and begins to change the entire way she lives her life, with very mixed results.

Reading History: “And They Called it Camelot: A Novel of Jackie Bouvier Kennedy Onassis” (by Stephanie Marie Thornton)

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a sucker for a good historical novel. While I mostly prefer novels that are set in the distant past, recently I’ve found myself drawn to a recent crop of historical novels set in the more recent past. One of the best authors in that regard is Stephanie Marie Thornton. I very much enjoyed her novel American Princess, which was about the life of the spitfire Alice Roosevelt, the daughter of Teddy Roosevelt, and so I was looking forward to her new book about Jackie O., the beautiful and enchanting wife of John F. Kennedy and the queen of Camelot.

As soon as I started reading the novel, I knew that I was going to be entranced, and so it proved to be. From the first page to the last, I found myself swept up in the heady and enchanting world of mid-20th Century America, when everything seemed possible.

The novel starts just before Jackie begins her romance with John Kennedy. The two quickly and fall in love and get married, and Jackie finds herself drawn along as Jack begins his political ascent. Of course, she also has to deal with a multitude of other conflicts and issues: his powerful family, her sister and mother, Jack’s health troubles and infidelities, the strain of the 1960s and its political conflagrations. Through it all, Jackie continues to show her signature strength and durability, weathering each blow. The novel concludes with a visit to the White House, where she stands with her two children and gazes at the portrait of Jack Kennedy, poised to take on the future and all that it holds.

Throughout the novel, we come to feel with Jackie as she confronts the realities of her husband’s infidelities. (She doesn’t have much good to say about Marilyn Monroe, needless to say). Like so many other political wives, she has to work through the complicated political calculus of whether to stay with this man that she so clearly loves, or whether she should set out on her own and leave him. Ultimately, she decides on a middle course, and in doing so she radically reshapes the role of the First Lady, shaping a template that will influence subsequent women. Most notable is her decision to remake the White House into a repository of American history, a testament to Jackie’s historian sensibility.

As important as Jack was to Jackie, her second husband, Aristotle Onassis, is also a significant figure. I have always found that particular relationship to be something of enigma, but in the novel Thornton makes the convincing case that Jackie married the Greek magnate in an effort to escape from the glaring lights of the public and to provide her children with some level of security. We can’t help but sympathize with her desires.

The novel steers something of a middle course when it comes to her relationship with Bobby Kennedy, which is understandable, given that historians and biographers alike remain similarly divided on the issue. The novel makes it clear that they felt dearly for one another, that Jack’s death brought them even closer together. Whether or not they ever consummated their relationship physically is left unclear, but in the end it is somewhat beside the point. For Jackie, Bobby is in many ways the man to fill the hole in her life left by Jack’s brutal death, and his subsequent death is yet another example of the tragedy that afflicts Jackie’s life.

One of the most enjoyable parts of the novel was the way that it emphasized the fact that Jackie Kennedy was a fierce and sharp intellect. This is no small thing, considering that the dominant image of Jackie in the popular imagination is of a glamor queen. However, this is a woman who knew French, who studied at the Sorbonne, who had a passionate interest in history, who went on to become an editor at a major press. It is her interest in history that I found particularly compelling, especially as she attempts to ensure that Jack’s legacy is remembered in the way that she deems appropriate.

And They Called it Camelot also allows us to see how it is that a woman who was more comfortable out of the spotlight than in it found herself at the center of one of the most famous presidencies in the history of the United States, the glittering queen who ruled over a golden court. At the same time, the novel doesn’t shy away from the fact that her life was also marred by an almost bewildering amount of tragedy. In addition to Jack’s brutal assassination in 1963, Jackie also had to endure several miscarriages (the last of which occurred right before Jack was killed). Time and time again, however, she

And it’s not just that the novel is well-constructed. It’s also just exquisitely written. The prose is at times incredibly lush, as frothy as the champagne that the Kennedys so frequently drink. At times, I simply allowed myself to just luxuriate in the prose. Though there is something to be said for using beautiful prose just for its own sake, here it serves a greater purpose. It allows us to believe that we are truly in the mind of the First Lady, with all of her refined taste and her nuanced ways of looking at the world. Every page is a pleasure to read, and before you realize it you’re done with the book.

And They Called it Camelot is one of the finest sorts of historical fiction. It allows us an intimate look into the mind of one of the most influential and well-known First Ladies to have inhabited the White House. It’s hard not to feel a profound sense of sadness at the fact that Camelot, that brief glimmering moment when America seemed poised on the cusp of a whole new world, lasted such a short period of time before being cut short by an assassin’s bullet. I cannot recommend it highly enough, and I can’t wait for Thornton’s next effort!

Book Review: “Thrawn: Treason” (by Timothy Zahn)

Darcy and Winters

So far, I’ve enjoyed each installment of Timothy Zahn’s new Thrawn trilogy, and the conclusion is no exception. In this novel, Zahn manages to tie together the various strands that he’s woven so far. Having established himself as one of the foremost warriors in the Empire and one of Palpatine’s most reliable lieutenants, Thrawn might seem to be at the height of his powers. Unfortunately, other powers are gathering that want to take him down, and the Empire is being threatened by an outside force. Thrawn must ultimately decide whether his true loyalties lay with the Empire or with his native Chiss Ascendancy.

This novel includes fewer passages from Thrawn’s point of view than previous installments. Instead, we get a variety of others, including Commodore Faro (Thrawn’s chief subordinate), as well as Ronan, one of the chief people involved with the development of the Death Star. It also sees the…

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Book Review: "A Darker Shade of Magic" (by V.E. Schwab)

Darcy and Winters

Every so often you read a fantasy books that just sort of sweeps you up in its fictional universe, a book that’s told in such a compelling way that you feel like you literally can’t put the book down.

Such is the case with A Darker Shade of Magic.

This novel, the first of a series by V.E. Scwhab, follows two characters, Kell and Lila, as they attempt to stave off the consequences of a dreadful new type of magic that threatens to upend the fragile balance of power that exists in their interconnected worlds. In the process, they discover much about themselves and, by the end of the novel, the stage is set for further adventures with the two of them.

At first, I couldn’t quite figure out why it was that I loved this book so much. Part of it, a significant part, is the setting. In the…

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Reading History: "Victoria" (by Daisy Goodwin)

I’ve always been fascinated by Queen Victoria, and it’s unfortunate that the image that dominates the popular imagination has been, until fairly recently, the dowdy old queen who appears in so many photos from the period. As a corrective to that, Daisy Goodwin has written Victoria, a novel that exists in conjunction with the British television series of the same name.

In this novel, we get a more intimate glimpse into Victoria as she comes to the throne. She is particularly drawn to the formidable Lord Melbourne. Though he starts out as her prime minister, she soon finds herself falling in love with him, to such a degree that she almost considers taking him as her husband. At the same time, she is surrounded by multiple people who want to see her manipulated for their own advantage, including both her mother and her conspirator Lord Conroy. Through it all, however, Victoria manages to assert her own identity and her own desires, until she meets the man who will change the course of her life forever: her cousin, Albert.

Goodwin excels at drawing us into the mind of the young Victoria, a woman who is willful and more than a little foolish sometimes. However, there’s no question that Victoria matures as the novel progresses, as she slowly comes to terms with what it means to be a queen. She must learn the painful lesson that so many monarchs both before and after her have had to absorb: that being a ruler means putting the needs of one’s subjects and one’s country ahead of one’s own. It’s really quite fascinating to watch Victoria learn these lessons, and her growing maturity is part of what makes her such a charming and sympathetic character.

Now, it must be said that there are times in the novel when it gets a little easy to lose patience with Victoria. She tends to be more than a little childish, and she indulges her whims to an unreasonable degree. However, that is precisely the point. This is a young woman who, because of her mother and her scheming paramour Lord Conroy, has kept Victoria sheltered from the outside world. Is it any wonder that, for a time at least, she was far too willing to give in to the demands of her heart, even if they exist in tension with the needs of the kingdom? And, besides, who hasn’t felt themselves falling in love with someone who showed us a bit of kindness and compassion when we needed it most?

One of the novel’s greatest strengths is in its exploration of relationships. Obviously, the most important one is that between Victoria and Lord M., but we also see the vexed and fractious bond she shares with her mother. There’s something almost tragic about the tension that always exists between the two of them, for while it’s clear that they truly love one another, there are always those who keep them from expressing that in the way that they both clearly want to. Lord Conroy deserves the lion’s share of the blame in this regard, for while he clearly has some affection for the dowager, he primarily sees her, and her daughter, as his pathway to power. Those moments when Victoria finally manages to attain a bit of closeness with her mother are some of the most affecting in the novel, and they remind us of the dangers of alienating those who should be closest to us.

Though the vast majority of the novel is told from Queen Victoria’s point of view, it does occasionally shift into other perspectives. For example, there are several times when we get to see into the mind of Lord Melbourne, and I often found myself struck by just how tragic it is that he and Victoria cannot have the romance that they both so clearly desire. Lord Melbourne is a man whose life has been marred by romantic tragedy, with his deceased wife having been responsible for hurting him (through an affair with Lord Byron, of all people).

Arguably the novel’s most important relationship is that which finally begins to develop between Victoria and her cousin Albert. When they first meet, they spar almost incessantly, each of them attempting to fight back against the feelings that they clearly feel for one another. It is only as they each begin to let their guards down and to embrace their own vulnerability–this is particularly difficult for Albert–that they allow their clear feelings for one another to begin to grow and develop. Though some reviewers have taken the novel to task for waiting until near the end to show the two of them falling in love with one another, I actually found that to be one of the novel’s greatest charms, their romance a satisfying way of bring it to a conclusion.

Only occasionally does the outside world intrude upon the world of enclosed world of Buckingham Palace. There are some few mentions of the war in Afghanistan, and there is a crucial scene in which Alfred bears witness to the grinding poverty afflicting London. These incidents show us the broader world of which Victoria was a part, despite the fact that she spent the vast majority of her life moving in the upper echelons of power.

All in all, I very much enjoyed Victoria. My only disappointment, and it’s a relatively minor one, is that, so far, this is the only novel Goodwin has written about Victoria. Goodwin really has a knack for both capturing the essence of a historical period and for getting us inside the minds of her characters. Though she has, clearly been at work on the television series as well , to my mind there’s a particular pleasure to be had in the reading of a historical novel, one that’s be easily replicated in a television series. However, now that I’ve finished the novel, I definitely plan on watching the show, if only to enjoy the fantastic costumes that will be on display.

Stay tuned for my review!

Reading History: “The Queen’s Vow: A Novel of Isabella of Castile” (by C.W. Gortner)

In the annals of European history, there are few women who have had as great an influence on the course of history as Isabella of Castile. With her husband Ferdinand–called here Fernando–she was responsible for bringing to a successful conclusion the Reconquista, in which the Muslim rulers of Spain were pushed out. While she was certainly one of the more enlightened monarchs of her era, Isabella was also subject to bouts of religious-influenced intolerance.

C.W. Gortner manages to capture all of these contradictions in this spell-binding novel. The Queen’s Vow begins in Isabella’s youth, when she flees the court of her dead father to take up exile with her mother. Due to court politics, however, she soon finds herself swept up in the ambitions of others, and when at last her brother dies she ascends to the throne. After a marriage to Fernando, prince and later King of Aragon, the two of them push to finish the reconquest of Spain from the Moors. By the end, she is poised on the brink of sponsoring the voyages of the man who would go on to become known as Christopher Columbus.

Through trial and triumph, however, one thing remains steady in Isabella’s life: her belief in her own right to rule Castile. And there is plenty of trial in this novel. From the beginning, Isabella finds herself caught up in plots and schemes by those who don’t have her best interests at heart. All too often, these cause Isabella tremendous emotional distress. She has to watch her mother slide slowly into madness, and she also has to confront the reality that both of her brothers are fated to meet ends that are truly tragic.

Through it all, however, she still manages to keep a firm grasp of her vision as the one person who can bring peace to her fractured kingdom. And it is, indeed, fractured. Due to the ineffectual reigns of both her brother and her father, the nobles of Castile are more intent on enriching themselves and oppressing the peasants that work than their land than they are on how to make the kingdom function as a true polity. It is a testament to Isabella’s formidable skills as a queen that she manages to not only survive but positively thrive. Time and again, she does what no one expects and, slowly but surely, she builds up her power.

One of Gortner’s great skills as a historical novelist is his willingness to engage with the flaws of his main character. In this instance, this has to do with the speed with which she decides to abandon the Jews when it becomes politically necessary to do so. And, of course, it’s worth pointing out that she also gave permission for the Spanish Inquisition, one of the most ruthless and cruel religious experiments in the history of Christianity. Gortner doesn’t try to gloss over or explain away these parts of Isabella’s record. As he points out in his note following the text, Isabella was very much a person of her time, and that means that she was as prone to mistakes and acts of cruelty as anyone else. Of course, the fact that she is queen means that her actions have consequences far beyond her own life.

Gortner also captures the strong emotional bond that clearly existed between Fernando and Isabella. Given that this was the Renaissance, a period in which royal women and men married for reasons of political expedience rather than for love, the fact that these two people managed to find so much wedded happiness with one another is nothing short of miraculous. The parts of the novel that depict the passionate love between them are truly steamy, drawing you into the physical intimacy that they share with one another. (Though I have to say that the description of Fernando in this novel is somewhat at odds with most of the portraits of him that I’ve seen).

As he always does with historical novels, Gortner manages to richly and convincingly convey the world of 15th Century Spain. There are times when you could swear that you were actually there, witnessing the sheer breathtaking beauty of this country (having been there, I can attest to the truth of that description). At the same time, he doesn’t get so lost in the details that you find yourself getting bored. Instead, this is very much a novel that you can get lost in for hours.

While Isabella is of course the focal point of the novel, we also get a glimpse into the many other larger-than-life characters that inhabited this particular world. We see ruthless churchmen, caring ladies, zealous friars, and more. All of them attempt to pull Isabella–and through her Castile–in their preferred direction, but she is a woman very much of her own mind. And, of course, there are her children, all of whom are positioned to take up leading roles in the history of Europe. Her descendants, as it turns out, will go on to rule Europe and, in fact, the world.

There is no denying that Isabella lived at one of the most important points in the history of Europe. This was an era of tremendous religious unrest and Spain, with its unique history as a place where Jews, Muslims, and Christians were able to exist in at least a measure of peace and accord, was poised to undergo cataclysmic change. Even though the novel is told entirely from the perspective of Isabella, it nevertheless conveys a significant amount of sympathy for the men and women who are affected by the rising tide of Christian zealousness that is poised to sweep over the peninsula, destroying much in its path.

All told, I very much enjoyed The Queen’s Vow. It’s everything that I look for in a historical fiction, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. Soon, I’ll be starting on Gortner’s novel about Isabella’s tragic daughter, the woman known to history as Juana the Mad. Stay tuned!

Book Review: “Star Wars: Thrawn: Alliances”

Darcy and Winters

Warning: Some spoilers for the book follow.

Readers of this blog will remember that I absolutely loved the first installment of author Timothy Zahn’s new trilogy about Thrawn, the Chiss general who rises through the ranks of the Imperial military to become a Grand Admiral. As soon as I finished that volume, I went ahead and started reading the second one, and I was not disappointed. It takes the character in some new and interesting directions, while remaining true to the developments that happened in the first novel.

This novel follows two different timelines. One, set in the diegetic present, follows Thrawn and his reluctant ally Darth Vader as they pursue an unknown disturbance in the outer reaches of the Galaxy. The other follows a younger Thrawn as he engages with Anakin and Padmé as they investigate a mining operation that could seriously reshape the war between the Republic and…

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Reading History: “The Romanov Empress” (by C.W. Gortner)

I’ve been meaning to read the works of historical novelist C.W. Gortner for some time now, and when I saw that he’d recently written a book about Dagmar of Denmark, the woman who would eventually become Tsarina Marie of Russia, I knew that I had to pick it up and read it. From the first page to the fast, I found Gortner’s story utterly captivating. In fact, I almost couldn’t put it down until I’d finished it!

The novel begins with Dagmar–known to many as Minnie–living in her native country of Denmark. While she is initially affianced to the young son of the tsar, after his unfortunate and untimely death she finds herself affianced to his blustering younger brother. What begins as a reluctant marriage soon blooms into true love, and they find true happiness with one another. Unfortunately, it is Minnie’s destiny to live in Russia during a period of tremendous upheaval and turmoil, and by the end of the novel she has lost nearly everything as the Russian Revolution sweeps the monarchy away.

Minnie is a captivating narrator, and it’s easy to like her. She’s fierce and intelligent, willful and clever, and she isn’t shy about letting others know about how she feels. The novel ably portrays the ways in which she was a positive influence on the rule of her reactionary husband, curbing some of his darker tendencies and channeling her own energies into a variety of charitable causes. Likewise, she tries–with only limited success–to imbue her sensitive and ineffectual son Nicky with the strength and determination he needs in order to secure his throne.

Now, the book doesn’t shy away from the less flattering aspects of Marie’s personality. She does tend to be a bit imperious, and she has a certain pride that doesn’t always allow her to be as sensitive to the needs of others as she should be. In particular, she has a difficult relationship with her two daughters, and she often finds it difficult to accept that they are not willing and/or able to follow the same path that she did. Born into a role that they didn’t ask for, one can hardly blame them for striking out on their own and forging their own destinies (in fact, it may be just that independent spirit that keeps them alive during the Revolution).

Minnie’s most difficult relationship, however, is with her daughter-in-law Alexandra. It’s not hard to see why. There’s no doubt that Minnie feels some jealousy that her beloved Nicky falls head-over-heels in love with a woman she deems unsuitable (for both good and bad reasons). For all of her flaws, Minnie truly cares about the well-being of the empire and the people, and she realizes, even if the two rulers do not, that their actions are exacerbating an already-existing political crisis. She sees the truth with a clarity that the rest of her family lacks, and this often means that she has the unenviable burden of seeing how the future will turn out, even as she is unable to change it.

I really admire a historical novelist who can both capture the ambience of a past historical moment while also not getting too bogged down in the details of material culture. I mean, I love the descriptions of fabrics and furniture and jewels as next as the next person, but sometimes it’s easy for novelists to get lost in the detail and to forget about the plot. Not so Gortner. He manages to keep the plot moving at a quick pace, and when I was finished with the book I was rather surprised to feel that I actually had a pretty good snapshot of most of Minnie’s life. What’s more, I felt as if I had a stronger understanding of what it was like to be a royal living in the heady days of the 19th and early 20th Centuries, right before the chaos of modernity swept all of their lives away.

There’s no question that, for many, the Romanovs are the epitome of tragedy. Unwilling or unable to transform their country in the ways that it needed in order to move into the 20th Century, they ultimately found themselves victims of a situation of their own making. While the novel ends on a somewhat triumphant note–with Marie escaping from the Bolsheviks–it also leaves us in no doubt that she has lost almost everything that was dear to her. That crown and throne that she committed so much time and energy to preserving has now been utterly abolished, and to make matters worse she doesn’t have definitive word about what happened to her beloved Nicky and her grandchildren.

Of course, now we know that Nicky and his family were indeed slain in the basement of the house in Yekaterinburg, in one of the most infamous slaughters in a regime known for its barbarity. One can’t help but feel a powerful sense of pity for Marie, never knowing exactly what happened to either of her two sons who perished in the Revolution. She can hardly blame the woman for insisting that they might still be alive, clinging to the hope that there might be a restoration of the monarchy that she worked so hard to preserve. To my mind, Minnie, more perhaps than any of the other members of her family, draws us into the complicated mindset of the last ruling Romanovs. She might not be perfect, and the system of which she was a part might have been fatally flawed, but you can’t help but have at least a little bit of sympathy for them, trapped as they were in a gilded cage.

Overall, I very much enjoyed The Romanov Empress. It has all of the things that I usually look for in an historical novel, and I can’t wait to dive in to some of the other books that Gortner has written. Next up is his novel about Isabella of Castille, certainly on of history’s most powerful queens. Stay tuned!

Book Review: “Children of Virtue and Vengeance” (by Tomi Adeyemi)

Darcy and Winters

When I first read Children of Blood and Bone, I was absolutely blown away. It wasn’t just that I was excited to finally see a young woman of color writing what was, by all accounts, a stunning fiction debut. It was that this extraordinary talent had managed to create a compelling world based on Africa mythology, one that lived and breathed and drew you in from first page to last. Thus, when Children of Virtue and Vengeance came out, I rushed to the store.

I’m glad I did.

Children of Virtue and Vengeance picks up shortly after the previous novel ending, with Zélie mourning the death of her father, while royal siblings Inan and Amari each struggle for the throne in order to bring an end to the war that has already cost so many lives. The novel follows each side as they each go to ever-greater depths of darkness…

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